Willy LOYOMBO ESIMOLA: Defending the rights of forest peoples in DRC

 

Willy Loyombo Esimola

Willy Loyombo Esimola, Director of OSAPY (Organisation d’Accompagnement et d’Appui aux Pygmées) in DRC, came to visit us in Lyon. AEDH has been supporting OSAPY’s activities since 2005. It also enjoys support from a programme put in place by a consortium of European NGOs – AEDH included – aimed to support local initiatives that promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

You are the co-founder of OSAPY. What was the state of affairs when you created the organisation?

Willy Loyombo Esimola: OSAPY came together during the second war in Congo, in 1998, in Opala, Province Orientale. It was created in response to serious human rights violations that were being carried out against Pygmy peoples by the warring parties.

In 2002, we established a base in Kisangani and grew our range of activities. At the same time, we were carrying out an investigation of cases of cannibalism of Pygmies perpetrated in Ituri by the troops of Jean-Pierre Bemba (Editor’s note: Bemba is being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity for activities carried out in Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003). We have since been working in Orientale, Equateur and Bandundu Provinces.

Creating an organisation that lobbies for the rights of Pygmies in a region where those people are profoundly discriminated against must be a huge challenge. What difficulties have you had to face?

WLE: By advocating against a social system based on an almost slave-like exploitation of the Pygmy peoples, we experienced a lot of resistance straight away from those who benefit from the situation. Mainly, it was the local authorities for whom the Pygmies represent cheap labour who resisted, as it’s not in their interests to see the Pygmies liberated.

So it was against this backdrop that you solicited AEDH’s help back in 2005 for the “Opala Protocol” project.

WLE: Through this project, we aimed to help pygmies of the Opala region to attain access to property rights and to education for their children. AEDH’s support was crucial to setting up the process of peaceful cohabitation between the Pygmy people and the Bantus.

How did you manage to get a cohabitation agreement signed?

WLE: The Pygmies are an autochthonous people by the UN’s definition. They’re very attached to their homeland, to the forest and to their natural resources; they speak their own language and consider themselves a distinct people. The issue was getting them to be more open to others while preserving their identity and customary rights. In the beginning, each group had to put their differences aside to reach an agreement. The Bantus eventually understood that their behaviour towards the Pygmies was unfair and they agreed to live harmoniously with them.

Since 2005 and the Opala Protocol, what’s the situation for DRC’s pygmies?

WLE: There’s been some real progress. Pygmy children are now going to school. The Pygmy women are now accepted into maternity wards. Groups have been created by Pygmy women. That was impossible eight years ago.
Today, OSAPY is working for the preservation of the environment as the forest is the natural home of the Pygmy people. We are calling for the protection of these natural spaces by prohibiting the destruction caused by mining and forestry companies. We are leading advocacy activities with other Congolese organisations to see that reforms regarding natural resource extraction are put in place and progressive policies are adopted to support them. We encourage companies to respect the social clauses of their specifications so that the pygmy communities can reap some of the benefits of the resource exploitation taking place on their land.

How did OSAPY go from advocating for human rights to advocating for the environment?

WLE: What we’re doing – decrying the large-scale exploitation of natural resources by foreign companies – comes straight from the Pygmy community. OSAPY’s mandate has broadened and the organisation has been working for the rights of the forest peoples, for natural resources, for the reduction of emissions due to deforestation and degradation (REDD) and for extractive companies to be more socially responsible. We’re supporting communities in their negotiations with these enterprises with respect to codes for forestry and mining, and we’re leading international advocacy efforts with European organizations such as FERN, CITD, Global Witness, Well Grounded and EFI (European Forest Institute) for the monitoring of the EU’s policies and regulations on forests.

 

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